Each year on my birthday I make a list of new things I want to try. Some of them are easy, some are hard, some are shockingly mundane. You can read about past adventures here.
I like to think of myself as a Serious Reader. I did my undergrad in English Literature, I’m part of a book club, and, well, my love for books is such that I dressed my cat in literature-inspired costumes and made a calendar out of those photos.
And yet. It’s been a looooong time since I’ve read something ‘challenging.’ My taste in books runs towards funny, self-deprecating memoirs and essays (Anne Lamott
, David Sedaris
, Bill Bryson
, Cheryl Strayed
). And while these writer are warm and funny and big-hearted and occasionally thought-provoking they rarely use words I need to look up. They rarely present a moral quandary that I wrestle with.
“Oh, Bill! You and your hijinks! Don’t invite your crazy friend from high school to go hiking with you! What self-respecting hiker brings canned food?!” Chucklechucklechuckle.
But Lolita? That business is challenging. And shockingly – quite funny.
If you didn’t know, Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze. Humbert is a French literary scholar who is handsome, a bit emotionally fragile, and a pedophile. Dolores (nicknamed Lolita) is the flirty, precocious 12-year-old daughter of Humbert’s single-mother landlord.
Humbert falls in love with Lolita and marries her mother who is hit by a car and killed while Lolita is at summer camp. Humbert picks Lolita up from camp and after she discovers her mother is dead, Lolita initiates a sexual interaction with Humbert.
The two have a sort of father/daughter/lover relationship that lasts for a few years before Lolita runs away with another middle-aged man.
I won’t ruin the ending for you because you really, really should read it.
Why is Lolita challenging?
I found myself empathizing with a pedofile. Humbert really, truly loves Lolita and when she rebuffs him he’s crushed. And who among us hasn’t experienced that?
It brings up so, so many questions. Where’s the line between love and obsession? What does it mean to be a family? Is it possible for a 12-year-old girl to sexually consent? What is the real root of pedophilia?
Also? Nabokov’s writing is dense and interesting and clever. His turns of phrase are laugh-out-loud funny and Humbert’s self-awareness is hugely disarming.
Some of my favorite passages:
“I sat with arms folded, one hip on the window sill, dying of hate and boredom.”
“I think I had better describe her right away to get it over with.”
“Just slap her hard if she interferes with your scholarly meditations. How I love this garden [no exclamation point in her tone]. Isn’t it divine in the sun [no question mark either].”
” … while fat Avis sidled up to her papa, Lolita gently beamed at a fruit knife that she fingered on the edge of the table, whereon she leaned, many miles away from me. Suddenly, as Avis clung to her father’s neck and ear while, with a casual arm, the man enveloped his lumpy and large offspring, I saw Lolita’s smile lose all its light and become a frozen little shadow of itself, and the fruit knife slipped off the table and struck her with its silver handle a freak blow on the ankle which made her gasp, and crouch head forward, and then jumping on one leg, her face awful with the preparatory grimace which children hold till the tears gush, she was gone – to be followed at once and consoled in the kitchen by Avis who had such a wonderful fat pink dad and a small chubby brother, and a brand-new baby sister, and a home, and two grinning dogs, and Lolita had nothing.”
“His nurse, a skeleton thin, faded girl with the tragic eyes of unsuccessful blondes, rushed after me so as to be able to slam the door in my wake.”
“Readers will surely recall at this point the obligatory scenes of westerns from their childhood. Our tussle, however, lacked the ox-stunning fisticuffs, the flying furniture. He and I were two large dummies, stuffed with dirty cotton and rags. It was a silent, soft, formless, tussle on the part of two literati, one of whom was utterly disorganized by a drug while the other was handicapped by a heart condition and too much gin.”
Have you read Lolita? What did you think? What other classics live up to their reputation?